The Academy Awards Has been Stuck Between Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith Before

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Written by Guy Nave

The Oscars were lambasted back in 2015 for a lack of diversity in all four acting categories. Only white actors were nominated, which prompted the Twitter campaign #OscarsSoWhite.

The following year, several black Hollywood personalities (most prominently Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee) threatened to boycott the Oscars.

Chris Rock was asked and he agreed to host the 2016 Academy Awards. There were many people who felt Chris Rock should have supported the boycott and turned down the offer to host the Academy Awards that year.

Chris Rock’s opening monologue for the 2018 Academy Awards

During his monologue, Rock not only defended his decision to host the Oscars, he also made light of the demands of those who said he should not host and that he “should quit.”

Rock stated, “How come it’s only unemployed people who tell you, you should quit something. No one with a job ever tells you, you should quit.”

Rock ridiculed those demanding a boycott, and he depicted the boycott as petty. He even questioned the motivation behind the boycott.

Rock asked why protest this particular Academy Award when the Academy has always been racist.

Why are we protesting ​this​ Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards — which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. You gotta figure it happened in the 50s in the 60s. You know in the 60s one of those years Sidney Poitier didn’t put out a movie.

Rock claimed that for some reason people “went mad” regarding this particular Academy Awards. Naming a few people, Rock said, “Spike got mad, and Sharpton got mad, Jada went mad and Will went mad….”

He then launched into harsh and pointed criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock said,

Jada said she’s not coming, protesting…. I’m like, isn’t she on a TV show? Jada is going to boycott the Oscars ?— Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited. I understand why you’re mad. Jada’s mad her man, Will Smith, wasn’t nominated for Concussion. I get it. It’s not fair he’s that good and doesn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair he got paid $22 million for “Wild Wild West.

While many (predominately white) people praised Rock for “calling out” Hollywood on its racism, I found Rock’s shaming of those calling for a boycott and demanding Hollywood cease its racist practices and policies both offensive and disappointing.

Despite Rock’s dismissive humor, using a boycott to demand change —to demand the dismantling of systemic racism — is never petty (even if you disagree with boycotts).

While Rock had the right to host the 88th Academy Awards and to advocate for change in his own way, to use his platform as host of the Academy Awards to criticize those demanding accountability from the Academy was totally inappropriate.

Rock then went on the minimize the severity of the racism exhibited by the Academy.

You have to go at that in the right way. Is it burning cross racist? Is it fetch me lemonade racist? It’s a different type of racist…. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.

In some way, Rock was letting the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences off the hook by suggesting its racism is not serious life diminishing racism. It was a sentiment most likely appreciated by the genteel racists within the Academy.

Six years later, the Academy invited Rock back to host the 94th Academy Awards. Rock picked up where he left off in 2016, offering insults directed at Jada Pinkett Smith.

It is important to recognize Rock’s recent offensive joke was not the first time he used his platform as host of the Academy Awards to insult Jada Pinkett Smith. This history may also shed some light on Will Smith’s reaction.

While I am fascinated by the range of differing opinions regarding the appropriateness and inappropriateness of Chris Rock’s joke and Will Smith’s reaction, I’m also intrigued by the dearth of responses related to the role of the Academy itself in all of this.

As far as I know, the host’s monologue is created in consultation with and approval of the producers of the Academy Awards telecasts. While it is possible that Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith was improvised —the Academy knew it was coming, just like they knew his criticism of Jada Pinkett Smith in 2016 was coming.

In light of Jada Pinkett Smith’s called a boycott of the Oscars in 2016 and Chris Rock’s ridiculing and criticism of BOTH the boycott and Pinkett Smith and his downplaying of the severity of the Academy’s racism, it is hard for me to imagine the producers of the Academy not finding a degree of delight and satisfaction in Rock’s joke.

While it is easy to focus all of the attention on Chris Rock and Will Smith, it does seem to me the producers of the Oscars telecast were actually complicit in setting the stage for the outburst.

I also find the swift and forceful action taken by the Academy against Will Smith revealing, especially in light of the critique of systemic racism within the Academy made by Jada Pinkett Smith in 2016.

“And the Oscar for best subterfuge goes to….”

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About the author

Guy Nave

Guy Nave is a professor of religion at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. His research focuses on the topics of Christianity, religion and social justice, the social construction of religious meaning, and race-religion-and-politics. Professor Nave is currently researching the power, politics, and meaning behind the rhetoric of "change."

He is the author of several articles and book chapters, and he served as a New Testament Greek translator for the 2011 Common English Bible. His commentary on 2 Corinthians is published in the African American New Testament Commentary, and his book, The Role and Function of Repentance in Luke-Acts has been identified as “the standard scholarly work on repentance in the New Testament.”

Guy Nave received his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and his Ph.D. in New Testament studies from Yale University. In addition to his blog posts here, he is a frequent contributor to Sojourners Magazine's online "Commentary" blog series.

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